Going forward, the FTI tech strategic communications team will be weighing in frequently on a topic near and dear both to us and many clients: drones, or, for more exacting types, Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS’). As the hyperlink in the prior sentence should clarify, we’re not focused on the military ones that first drove UAS’ to prominence and still dominate headlines. Instead, we increasingly peer toward more commercial, if still not quite friendly, skies. Why?
Early in the morning of January 26, 2015, a small recreational drone crashed onto the lawn of the U.S. White House. A sharp surge in social and traditional media attention resulted – nearly 400 major press stories, 75,000 tweets and 115,000 related YouTube videos appeared nearly overnight.
More surprising to those familiar with UAS’ was what went mostly unreported in all this noise:
- In late 2014, the FAA published a “Drone Accident List” of reported drone accidents that year. Nearly 200 drone collisions or near collisions with objects ranging from bystanders to commercial airliners were reported in just 9 months.
- An Associated Press-GFK survey conducted soon after the report’s release found that, by a 2-1 margin, those who had an opinion opposed using drones for commercial purposes. Furthermore, only 23% were in favor of recreational drones use, vs. 43% opposed.
- On January 8, 2015, the FAA requested that every law enforcement agency in the country provide it assistance in the effort to monitor and prevent unauthorized or unsafe UAS operations.
- Save for a handful of exemptions granted by the FAA to a handful of companies to date, most commercial, non-public-sector applications of UAS technology are, currently, illegal.
- In the week following the incident at the White House, emergent trade and policy organizations did little to shape the attention on UAVs; the Small UAV Coalition had failed to offer so much as a press release about the situation, and the AUVSI offered just a paragraph.
The White House drone event illustrates massive gaps between UAS use; regulation; private sector policy; and reputation management. For several years, many drone operators and manufacturers have privately claimed such gaps represent an advantage, more than a risk.
In FTI’s view, the increasing visibility of drone mishaps and assertiveness of the FAA – vs. enthusiasm for the business potential of drone use – upends this risk calculus.
Yet, the fact remains that drones can deliver huge cost advantages to infrastructure construction and monitoring, disaster relief, agricultural applications, and environmental surveys. In short, UAS-related business opportunity remains huge.
This contrast – between the potential drones represent; the way most Drone-Related Businesses (DRB’s) operate; and regulation as well as market anxiety and uninformed-ness – offers a rich vein for commentary. It’s also an area under-populated by non-specialist voices like ours that look not just at the underlying technology, but also comment, approachably, on policy, investment and opinion.
Our goal? To further clarify a real operating framework for DRB’s. So stay tuned. Look up. And stay classy.